Narnia != Allegory

Posted on July 26, 2011 by


I heard it today, for the third time in as many weeks. While the exact wording varies, the statements tend to go something like this:

“Narnia is not as good of an allegory as <insert series of more recent books here> because <more recent series of books> has a clearer 1-to-1 correlation with stories in the Bible.”

There are a couple of problems with this statement. First, usually when people say it they actually mean that they simply like the newer series of books better – and that’s fine (probably). But we need to call it what it is.

Secondly, the Chronicles of Narnia are not – nor were they ever intended to be – an allegory. C.S Lewis probably explained it best, when in a 1958 letter to a Mrs. Martha Hook he contrasts The Chronicles of Narnia with Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a true example of allegory:

If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair represents Despair, he would be an allegorical figure.  In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as he actually has done in ours?’”

And again:

I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would have happened.’ If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing.

In 1961, Lewis wrote:

Supposing there really was a world like Narnia . . . and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened?

“The stories are my answer. Since Narnia is a world of talking beasts, I thought he would become a talking beast there as he became a man here. I pictured him becoming a lion there because a) the lion is supposed to be the king of beasts; b) Christ is called ‘the lion of Judah’ in the Bible.”

The Chronicles are what Lewis called a “fairy story” – a fictional story with powerful applications to real life. This brings us to the mark of truly helpful fiction: when you finish walking in the author’s fictional world, you should be stronger, bigger, and grander person than you were before. Instead of sucking you into unreality, it should push you back toward God and true reality.

Many people mistake well-written, immersive fiction (Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is an excellent example) for truly good fiction. They are not the same thing.

In his On Stories And Other Essays on Literature, Lewis lays out how the whole purpose of his writings were to restore the joy and wonder he felt missing in his own religious upbringing:

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which paralyzed much of my own religion since childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But suppose casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past the watchful dragons? I thought one could.

So when you read Narnia, don’t look allegories hiding around every corner. Instead, enjoy the stories for what they are: A vehicle by which we can recapture the wonder and the glory of Life in Christ; to make Christ a part of every day life, and every day life a source of profound joy.

“Are – are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” – C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Posted in: food for thought